An Act respecting the laicity of the State (French: Loi sur la laïcité de l’État) is a Quebec law enacted by Bill 21 and tabled by the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) on March 29, 2019. It is the first Quebec law stating that “The State of Québec is a lay State (section 1).” Since it was passed, new hires among public workers in positions of coercive authority have been banned from wearing religious symbols. It also mandates having one’s face uncovered to give or receive specific public services.
The first section of the Act Respecting Laicity of the State asserts that Quebec is a “lay State”. The laicity of the state is based on four principles:
- the equality of all citizens
- the separation of State and religions
- the religious neutrality of the State
- freedom of conscience and freedom of religion
According to the second paragraph of section 4, “State laicity also requires that all persons have the right to lay parliamentary, government and judicial institutions, and to lay public services”.
The Act (included in Bill 62, “An act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies”) made world headlines in October 2017. The bill was passed on October 18, 2017. The act banned a person whose face is covered from delivering or receiving a public service. Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée stated that people could seek religious exemption on a “case by case” basis.
The ban has worried some conservative Muslims who consider face covering a necessary part of their religion  and have defined the move as Islamophobia. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out against it. Several scholars have also criticised the ban. The ban was challenged by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims in the Quebec Superior Court. Meanwhile, the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec argued the ban was not extensive enough. Some journalists accused Quebec’s then-premier Philippe Couillard of supporting the ban for “perceived political advantage,” while a majority of the general public expressed their support for this move.
With regards to public opinion, an October 27 Ipsos poll found that 76% of Quebecers backed Bill 62, with 24% opposing it. The same survey found the 68% of Canadians in general supported a law similar to Bill 62 in their part of Canada. An October 27 Angus Reid Institute poll found that 70% Canadians outside of Quebec supported “legislation similar to Bill 62” where they lived in the country, with 30% opposing it.
However, a judge made the decision that the face-covering ban cannot be applicable while analysis by another court, because of irreversible injury it may cause some women of the Muslim faith. Twice since December 2017 a Quebec judge granted an injunction on that section questioned in court by the National Council of Canadian Muslims with the participation of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. In the judgment of the court, said section contravenes the freedoms guaranteed by the Quebec and the Canadian charters of human rights and freedoms.
The Quebec Liberal Party government confirmed that it would not appeal that suspension of the key article of its Religious Neutrality Act. The government of Quebec preferred to wait for a judgement on the substance and constitutionality of the law.
If the Liberal government had been re-elected in the general election on October 1, 2018, Premier Philippe Couillard said he would be ready to go to the Supreme Court of Canada, if necessary, to defend Bill 62. From his previous comments on the matter, Couillard was not likely to preserve the face covering ban by invoking the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Couillard stated that his government, in passing Bill 62, did not use the notwithstanding clause by design, saying that the Supreme Court would probably uphold his government’s limited ban as reasonable and justified.